Stories of private, inner turmoil need not be narrow; in some ways this has been the story of Paul Schrader's career. The 75-year old writer of Taxi Driver and director of works ranging from the Detroit-set Blue Collar to American Gigolo and his last, First Reformed, has honed, like an artisan or a painter, a long series of works in the same mold. A specialist in close character studies of repressed, ardently hopeful, and tormented men rising toward often violent catharsis, Schrader's rigorous but richly indulgent project finds its latest chapter in The Card Counter — and his years of practice show.
Starring Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a nomadic gambler staying afloat on low-stakes games, Schrader's newest film oscillates with a steady, rarely broken rhythm between casinos and roadside motels. With a methodical, exacting approach well-suited to a petty king of numbers games, he works away with great discipline and little pleasure, absent friends and lovers both. At Counter's start, Tell maintains a low profile after finding himself freed from prison, winning modestly at cards each day before retreating to the room he's chosen, each disparate space blending together for the way he covers their shabby furnishings in twine and white cloth. Drifting around the country, each space he makes a temporary home in becomes both anonymous and his.
As a performer associated less with pathos than his looks and easy charm, Isaac demonstrates admirable control here; his poker face in this case is a full-body endeavor. Withholding his charisma only to dispense it in small turns of wit and facial movements which gain surprising power for their sparseness, he gives just enough in monologue and gesture to tantalize, cultivating a palpable air of mystery. Covered reliably in steely neutral, sheen-prone garments and sporting a sleek, fastidious and off-trend undercut, he exudes an air of precision and pure control whose cracks are weaponized to accrue sentiment and meaning. With its careful frames adorned by finely modeled shadows and backed by a yearning electronic score that smothers the contrived buoyancy of the casinos that rotate through our view, Schrader and crew engage intimately with Tell's own air of precision. Observing Tell open up, risking intimacy, trust, and freer expression (a gamble!) — things that were never successfully tamped down — is the fortunate viewer's privilege. For those left hungry for shows of feeling, each gesture settles like a meal.
But Tell's re-introduction to the world, or at least a world of people, doesn't happen unprovoked; he's spotted — and confronted — by one "Cirk with a 'C,'" a slovenly, aimless, and quite broke twenty-something played by Ready Player One's Tye Sheridan. With Cirk more a narrative foil and agent of chaos than a coherent, thinking person, the two roving strangers are twinned not just through questions of their respective purposes (one appearing messy and aimless, the other pursuing an ordered aesthetic existence) but of their pasts. As Cirk reveals, Tell's incarceration wasn't for nothing (though on some level, it was) — in Tell's past life as a soldier, he took part in the heinous torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, alongside Cirk's own father. Unlike Major Gordo (played by an always splendid Willem Dafoe), the man who directed them both, Tell wound up photographed at the scene and thrown in military prison, as did Cirk's father. Once his father was released, Cirk claims that his family was subject to years of paternal torment and abuse. Stewing in resentment and mired in debt, he nurses a vague plan to torture and kill Major Gordo — imagining dumbly that revenge could provide any kind of relief.
Working to steer Cirk from this course and pay off the kid's debts, Tell agrees to bring him along, offering him an allowance, covering his expenses, and letting him roam each casino while he works — all while maintaining clear and careful boundaries. To this end — and some warmer ones – Tell accepts the company of La Linda (a sparky, flamboyantly dressed Tiffany Haddish). La Linda runs a stable of poker players, coordinating with sponsors to have them bet in for high-stakes games. Recognizing Tell's potential for winning much bigger, she takes him under her wing, routinely prodding him on his past crimes after intuiting his carceral past — and asking into his current hermetic existence.
As they drift about the country, moving laterally through like places, but somehow and with little fanfare, moving up in this dim world, the three form a hesitant bond, each player performing in conflicting, different styles. Suggesting that they come from different worlds emotionally and otherwise, their range of presentation reflects Tell's own struggles and isolation, the idea that he has to re-learn, or perhaps never learned, to navigate the world. Whirling around the touching suggestion that being forgiven is the same thing as forgiving oneself, and the natural implication that loving others — a sweet indulgence if there ever was one — is bound up in affection for oneself, the characters' strained efforts to reach one another pierce through the film's ordered surface with a sweetness amplified by the material that surrounds them. For Schrader, who grew up in West Michigan's protestant Dutch Reform communities, his films are guided by a kind of religiosity that's dependent on a moving sort of faith — but not one plainly held in God.
For Schrader, too, the looming horror of Abu Ghraib is more than just a backdrop, a challenge to all of this. Recalling and capturing cataclysmic acts that may well be unforgivable — and never falsely citing 9/11 as some kind of precipitating, self-justifying cause for them — The Card Counter bores into Tell's closed, hermetic struggle until it becomes an intimate and shared one. (For being so personal, the film's miraculously free of self-justification.) The careful order of Tell's own life is reflected in the script, whose narrative rhymes and clear omissions showcase purpose and evidence of exacting deliberation: a strained effort at containing and addressing this, and a case for the film all on their own. Within the strip malls and chintzy cash-temples of the film's world, this approach serves to restrain and account for the messiest and ugliest parts of life, managing the story's fruitful tensions with thought and care. In confronting us with them, and in sharing these parts of his own mind in a manner as personal as this, Schrader's taking a practiced, revealing, and quite risky gamble of his own.
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